Sunday, February 28, 2010

Open Letter from a Volunteer

One of my favorite parts of this project (there are many, but this is honestly one of my absolute favs) is having an excuse to get to know some of the most kind-hearted people around: my volunteers. Check out who they are and what they've been doing for this project in our updated blog sidebar/ Facebook info tab. And now, it's with total gratitude that I share a few words from one of them:

I first heard about the “The Best Day of My Life… So Far” project when I received an open email from Benita Cooper asking for volunteers to transcribe the writings of the seniors in her class. I immediately was drawn to the project for its intrinsic value to, not only future generations, but to the seniors who have so much to say and to few of us are listening; you have only to read the stories to understand. I have always thought that, as a society, we have sadly neglected our seniors and have failed to recognize what wonderful anecdotes they have to share from their life experiences.

Like so many others, my grand-parents immigrated to this country just after the turn of the century. Although both my grand-mothers died before I was born I still had my grand-fathers with me until I was a teenager. How many times I have regretted the fact that I never asked more questions and talked more with them about their experiences; coming to America, living through two world wars, the great depression and so much more. How wonderful it would have been to know why they decided to make the journey across and ocean and leave behind family and friends for the unknown. To have had their stories written down in their own words would have been a legacy beyond value.

Through the “Best Day” project our seniors have an opportunity to get their stories out there for everyone to appreciate. The value of this project goes way beyond any personal or private gain but is clearly a viable way of preserving our ancestry and more importantly a value beyond measure to our seniors who now have a voice, and through that voice gain a renewed sense of worth.

- Arlene LeVine

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Beatrice (A Different Kind of Weather)

I’ll always remember this story because of what Beatrice said afterwards, in response to my exclamation: “I can’t even imagine experiencing changes as drastic as this.”

And this is what she said, laughing (she’d already started laughing before she said it): “If you’re around long enough, you WILL!”

How could I not laugh with her? It’s scary and beautiful at the same time. To know that one day I will know a lot of things that, right now, hey, I just don’t know. Really scary and really beautiful.

Beatrice Newkirk
A Different Kind of Weather

The weather today is altogether different.  In the olden days, we could tell the difference in the weather.  We knew when it got cold, it stayed cold.  When it got hot, it got hot and stayed hot.  In the days of cold, we would put away summer clothes until the next summer.  We did not have to go back and forth. 

Nowadays, we don’t know.  Cold one week, hot the next.  Nowadays, you have to keep summer clothes, winter clothes altogether.  We never had to go back in the summer to get summer things out of the closet because it was a change in the weather.  Sometimes we think it’s going to be hot, then it’s cold.  We can’t change the weather, but we can change ourselves.

God is in charge of the weather.  Whatever is put on us, we have to bear.  Without the weather, where would we be?  A different kind of weather.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mo (A Criminal Act)

Mmm, looking through the past few blog posts and noticing that they are on the serious side. How about kicking it with a funny post today? But first, some sound effects. Before reading out loud in class, Mo whispered, "It's the first time I've ever confessed this." Around the table, the rest of us gasped, squealed, magnified our eyes and huddled closer.  And then, finally, Mo began: "The… Cr…iminal… Act!" The gasping, squealing, magnifying and huddling happened all over again...

Mo McCooper
A Criminal Act

When I was little my mother had a number of stays in the hospital. She never complained but it was tough on her. My Aunt Helen and Uncle Joe, a police sergeant would keep me at their house a few blocks from mine.  I was about five years old and had spent a week or so with my cousins, my Aunt Helen baked a lemon meringue pie for me to take home to my parents.

About halfway home I noticed a thick bushy tree in front of a neighbor’s house. The smell of the hot pie overcame my sense of right and wrong. Just one bite led to another and soon all the pie was gone. I hid the pie plate under the little porch behind me. A few days later Aunt Helen called my mom to ask me to bring the pie plate back. The gig was up and my life of crime had been discovered. I have never lived that event down but they laughed too hard to sentence me.

Monday, February 22, 2010

On Selfishness

Mo as you know is one of my senior buddies. This week, he and I were scrolling through the class’ Facebook page, and I said almost without thinking, see how you are inspiring all these young people?

Guess what he told me? “Oh, I don’t know about that aspect of it. I just know what this means to myself. This class got me to do something I really should have done a long time ago. Write things down. Think about things. And you know, all this got me thinking that I should’ve taken the time to have these conversations with my own grandparents before they passed.” We talked for a while about all this. “Like I tell my four daughters,” he added, looking straight into my eyes, “it’s ok to be selfish sometimes.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about what he said in the past few days. I don’t think he was trying to be modest. We're too close for that. He was being honest. His fuel is personal.

There is a sweet spot when selfishness equals personal drive. I think that's what Mo meant. So I've been thinking, if it’s ok to be selfish, what is my fuel? What keeps me pumped about our storytelling class week after week? Why am I so excited right this second as I'm typing on this blog?

For me it comes down to something very simple. I love talking with my grandma on my phone. I live in Philadelphia; she lives in Seattle. Our ages are fifty-nine years apart. But on the phone, distance disappears. It feels like we’re two schoolgirls giggling side by side on a swingset. Our friendship opens my heart up, and I want to do everything I can to hold onto that feeling and grow it bigger. In Chinese, which is the language we talk in, “open-heart” translates to mean happy.

If all it takes for me to feel happiness is to get on the phone with my grandma every other night and hang out at the senior center once a week, if it’s that easy, of course I’ll do it! If along the way, other people get “inspired” to listen along and reach out to the seniors in their lives, awesome. If along the way, seniors gain joy in any way, amazing. If along the way, it has taught me and any of my peers to think positively about aging and even look forward to it (I am turning thirty this year, not old but not young), hey, why not. If along the way, the project grows larger than myself (at last check our blog readership has reached 400 a month), larger than I can wrap my head around, I’ll challenge myself to grow with it.

Because if it’s ok to be selfish, I’ll go ahead and say it: I am collecting seniors’ stories and sharing them simply because it makes me happy.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ronald (The Family)

The other day in class, Beatrice unfolded a sheet of paper from her purse and handed it to me. On it was a poem in bold font. “Who wrote this?” I asked. “My son,” she says, “He wrote this several years ago, and everyone in the family has a copy.” She asked me if I could tape it up where it was ripped at the folds – clearly she's been carrying this poem in her purse all these years. Then, she asked if I could read it out loud for the class. I remember feeling so honored as I read, and I remember the pride that kept pouring out of her eyes as I looked up between the lines.

Ronald Newkirk
(#3 of Beatrice’s 7 sons)
The Family

When it’s family
you forgive them for they know not what they do
When it’s family
you accept them, ‘cause you have no choice but to.
When it’s family
they’re a mirror of the worst and best in you.
and when they always put you to the test and
you always do you best, and just pray for GOD to
do the rest.

when it’s family
some are preachers, some are gays, some are addicts,
drunks and strays, but none are turned away
when it’s family.
some are lucky, others ain’t, some are fighters.
others faint, winners, losers, sinners, saints
It’s all about family.
And when it’s family you trust
them and your heart’s an open door, and when it’s family
you tolerate what you’d kill others for.
when it’s family
you love and hate and take, then give some more.
somehow you justify mistakes, try to find some better way
to solve the problems day to day in the family.
you take the trouble as it comes and love them more
than anyone, good or bad or indifferent it’s still family.
You choose your lover, pick your friends,
not the family that you’re in, they’ll be with you
till the end cause it’s family

and when it’s family
you forgive them for they know not what they do
when it’s family
they’re a mirror of the worst and best in you.

When it’s family,
Let me be all I should be to
The Family…

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Beatrice (The Dinner Table)

Beatrice has run one good family. That’s for sure. Here’s a piece she wrote about the importance of the dinner table. Ironic, right? As pressure mounts these days on parents to accumulate (classes, books, magazines, toys, irresistible little onesies), turns out all parents need to do is to clear the table. But... the real proof of a top-notch parent is her son’s family values. (You guessed it, that’s my effort at a cliffhanger - stay tuned for a poem from Beatrice’s son in the next blog post!)

Beatrice Newkirk
The Dinner Table
Had to feed a family of 12 kids and two grown-ups.  Planning a meal was not an easy job – making sure everything was planned right.  I always cooked a full meal.  I always cooked greens, beans, macaroni and always something hot.

Breakfast was always a must.  My kids never went to school hungry.  In the fifties, my kids came home for lunch.  So at 12 o’clock, they came home, went back to school at one o’clock.  Nowadays, they have lunch in the schools.  Things are so different now and better.

Another good time at the table was on Thanksgiving.  That was when we cooked that biggest meal.  Everyone at the table at one time.  The dinner table was the best.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bernice (My Friends Next Door)

This story will melt you. I promise.

There’s nothing fancy to this story. But maybe that’s just the thing. Its breathtaking innocence.

Bernice Moore
My Friends Next Door

In 1940, we lived in a place where everyone was nice.  Everyone kept their door steps clean and extra clean on holidays.  It was fun to see the smiles on people’s faces; the older people were nice- always giving the kids toys and things.  I loved going to the store for them and helping them plant their gardens.  I would always buy things for the people who could not go to the stores (wood or other things).  It was good to be around people who cared.  There were some sick people that needed help, and I was there to help them.  I was a good big sister for the babies of the street. 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Helen (Valentine’s Day in Junior High School)

It’s the day when hopeless romantics have the right to be shamelessly giddy! Ok, I’ll admit it: I’m one of those people (hmm, the greatest husband on earth may have something to do with that). Well, I know you’d be disappointed if I didn’t post a Valentine’s Day story, so here you go:

(Read it and you’ll get all giddy too.)

Helen H. Lahr
Valentine’s Day in Junior High School

My family and I (Mother, Daddy, and Irene) had been living in Lancaster for a little over a year and it was Valentine’s Day again.  It was the custom to place a box (our homeroom teacher did this) on the table by the window.  Mr. Bendzfield was the name of the teacher.  He was also our Algebra teacher.  Anyone in any of the classes could come, either into their room or any other room in the school and place a card (or cards) in the boxes.

It was with trembling and trepidation that we listened as the teacher read out loud the names on each card.  There were lots and lots of giggles, oohs and aahs.  Finally, the reading of the names ended and we were dismissed.  I received not one card, but two cards from Charles.  I was very nervous when I stepped outside of the school.  My sister, Anna and Ruth (Charles’ first cousins) were waiting for me.  We walked home together every day.  Charles was nowhere to be seen.

I continued to be nervous all or most of the weekend because I knew I would see Charles in church on Sunday.  When I did see him he didn’t say a word – he just looked embarrassed.  I, of course, didn’t say anything about the card.  My sister really teased me.

Well, the years passed.   I first saw my first husband-to-be, off and on.  Because we saw each other only at the church conference held in Philadelphia it took awhile but we began to become attracted to each other.

One weekend, the young man who was to become my husband came down to Philadelphia.  He asked my parents permission to take me to a stage show.  My sister and I weren’t allowed to go to shows or movies on Sunday but to my surprise my father said, “Yes”.  This told me that my father and mother really liked him.  Our friendship continued to blossom and eventually led to our marriage.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hattie (The Wedding)

I like what Carol wrote in the previous blog post: by remembering a lost son’s wedding and showing us the pictures, Hattie really did find a way to regain a happy moment in time. Hattie passed around pictures of her son before reading the story below, and as the story progressed, the smile on her face kept spreading. But then, when she was done, she told us some bad news: her son passed away just five years after his wedding. As the words left her lips, a giant sadness cast over her face. But just for a second. And then she added, “It was such a nice wedding. I was soooo happy.” Her smile returned, wider than before.

Hattie Lee Ellerbe
The Wedding

It was August 26, 1985 and the whole house was filled with relatives from out of town, local family members and friends. One of the Ellerbe boys, Hursey and Hattie's son, was getting married. It was to be a large church wedding, just like Mommy and Daddy's. The groomsmen were handsome in their formal wear and ready to head for the church. The groom was outstanding.

Many of the guests were not sure which son was getting married and waited anxiously as the music started. Minister Gerald Spratt and my niece, Minister Laverne Settles Chapman, sang Endless Love and shook the rafters. They didn’t make rehearsals but they were perfect together.

Meanwhile the groom and the best man posed in an ante room for a last minute photo as a “single man.” As they walked out into the sanctuary many exclaimed excitedly, “Kevin is getting married.” (That’s another story.)

Debbie came down the isle radiant, beautiful and beaming with her father escorting her. They were married.

Fast forward… they danced the night away, I was soooo happy!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Carol (Welcome to Party World)

You’ve heard me say it here before, and I gotta keep saying it: I can’t keep this project up without the support of the best team of volunteers I could ask for. I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to have complete strangers write me long, personal emails telling me, that, yes, they want to jump on board and help me grow this project beyond its current state as a single class with a little blog. We operate as a digital team, mostly via email. Carol is one of the volunteers on my team, and last week was actually the first time we met in person, when she came to check out our physical class. Oops, did I say class? Because what I meant was, our rockin’ party!!

Welcome to party world.  That is how my introduction to “The Best Day of my Life” writing class felt.  A bunch of happy go-lucky seniors, writing about an event sometime in the distant past while singing, flirting, dancing in their seats, and celebrating a birthday, while led by an equally happy and charming young teacher, who came to this Senior Center by way of Hong Kong, Seattle and Boston. Young people say they party when they mean they drink together.  They could use lessons from this group.

Each of the group wrote an interesting piece, which reminded me of how things use to be.  When seeing Frank Sinatra, or eating a whole pie meant to be a gift to his mother was a big deal.  Or, remembering a lost son’s wedding and showing us the pictures, helped regain a happy moment in time. 

All had joy in their hearts that day.  Me too.  Thank you for that gift.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Henrietta (A Letter to Our Readers)

Look! Our birthday girl Henrietta put together a poem for you. It’s so sweet that the seniors are starting to do this (check out Helen’s letter from a couple weeks ago if you haven’t already). If you’ve ever wondered what your readership means to the seniors, now you know. The seniors “get” all this completely (this blog, the class’ Facebook and Twitter pages, this whole digital networking thing!) Even though they don't see you, they know you’re around. And the knowledge that you're around is what drives their pens to their notebooks week after week.

Henrietta Faust
How I Feel About You

I am just writing to
thank my readers.
To let you know how I
feel about you.

And if no one told you
they love you.  I’m telling
you now!  May you have
your best Valentine’s Day!

May you be comforted, soothed,
satiated, and warm and fuzzy.
May your heart be merry.
Your mind at peace.

And all your needs be met.
Your day be sunny and full.
Your nights a promise of joy & bliss.
May all you met bow at your feet.

May wind beat your back and you never linger.
And you have world on a string, around your finger.
And you know Peace, Power and Plenty.
Have a good life everyone.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Henrietta’s Surprise Party

It was Henrietta’s birthday over the weekend, and last class, the seniors and I threw her a mini surprise party! I had been so excited about it the week before, hoping we could pull it off. Henrietta has opened up to us in a huge way over the past few months. Several weeks ago, she told me, she is working on being more social and focusing her poems towards that. I still remember the first time I met her. I could hardly get a word out of her. She was not used to conversation. But now she laughs and talks with the rest of us. As she was nibbling on her cake and cookies last week, she wrote the poem below. BTW you know what's so cute? Henrietta took one of the balloons home to remember the day by.

(Check out our Facebook page for more pictures from the mini party.)

Henrietta Faust

Yesterday it snowed 2” of snow, and I
Could not come to the senior center yesterday.
My pet peeve is the weather and
Changes in the Weather. Yesterday

Many people could not travel, so all
Stayed home. Then today: a
Freezing but sunny day. But
Yesterday driving was dangerous.

People crashed cars, and schools
Had problems yesterday. But
Today is Great but Cold
But today my writing class teacher

Gave me a Birthday Party with Cake
And cookies today. Thank you all
For a very Happy Birthday Party.
Thank you one and all.

Friday, February 5, 2010

My Favorite Pranksters

Want to fill you in on an inside joke. Those of you who have been reading since the dawn of this class and blog (thank you btw for sticking with us!) know about this. Well, at least the first bit of the joke. Trust me, it just got better.

OK, so Bernice drew me a portrait of a woman the first time I met her. (Funny, right? Drawing in a writing class, but wait till you hear the rest…)

A couple weeks later, same portrait, at 80% the original size.

As I got to know her, I gently asked, so who’s the mystery woman? And she laughed and told me: no one in particular. Just someone in her imagination. I was left more mystified than ever. She knew she’s got me…

So, ever since then, most every class, she draws me the same portrait. She does this when one of the other seniors is reading out loud. She hands it to me with a straight face but as soon as the paper reaches my hand, she cracks up.

You would never believe this. So as I mentioned a few blog posts ago, her twin sister Beatrice, has started coming to class. Well, guess what SHE has started doing... the same portrait!

(Shown larger below, are Beatrice's and Bernice's latest handiwork; shown smaller are some of the drawings that Bernice has given me over the past months... aren't the similarities uncanny?! For the long version of how the mystery first unfolded, check out the posts entitled “Something I’ve Got to Ask” in the blog archive.)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Yup, We’re in the News!

Check it out - we're in the news! This project began so naturally and organically that it took me some time to figure out what to say in the article. Writing here on the blog is fun: I pop open my laptop and talk a little about this, a little about that. But the process of writing this article forced me to really sit back and consider what this project as a whole means to me.

In just a few short months, the project has grown beyond my imagination with the help of 12 volunteers and close to 200 of you reading each week. Ooo, just typing those numbers makes me quiver. I'm ready to grow, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. I'm really nervous. But I kind of like the feeling.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mo (Never Written Before)

Not long ago, Mo used to say week after week, "I've never done this before. I've never written anything before."

Now, as soon as he opens his notebook, his face lights up, and his once-fidgeting pen doesn’t leave the paper until three pages later. He tells me, “It’s been in my head all this years. It was just waiting to come out.”

As new seniors join our class, and tell us they’ve never written before, guess who is the first to assure them it’s ok? Mo tells them, "I've never done this before either, just like you."

The Big Three

Football, basketball and baseball were the major, and I may add, the only sports we played at the catholic school I attended. Just having a red and blue sweat shirt was enough of a thrill in seventh grade; and although I only played in the last few minutes of an away game, a tackle I made on a big tough running back from a Philadelphia team, helped my reputation on the playground.

Even though we did not have our own gym in which to practice, our eighth graders were very good athletes and I faithfully watched them from the bench all through the basketball season.

My not having gotten close to five feet in stature helped me to make the first team in baseball. Our coach, Father O’Connor, used me as the lead-off hitter. Most of the time, pitchers walked these guys, but I was able to lead the team in runs scored. I played a pretty good second base too, and the few singles I hit put my batting over 300.    As you might expect, I was quite impressed with myself and it all gave me a big head.

First Jobs

After earning nickels and dimes carrying shopping bags from the Acme and the A & P supermarkets to their cars and or homes, some of the housewives asked if we could cut their grass, shovel their sidewalks and snow covered steps and help clean their cellars. 

In the summer in between 7th and 8th grades I was hired as a soda jerk by a drug store owner named “Doc”Schekter who taught me to scoop ice cream for cones, milkshakes, and ice cream sodas.  Sodas were also made by adding coca, coffee, root beer, and other syrups to fizzy soda water.  Customers would also bring tasty cakes and pretzels to the soda fountain where we had learned to work the cash register. 

Bananas, cherries, and some kinds of nuts were used to make ice cream sundaes which adults ordered for themselves and sometimes their children or grandchildren. 

Teenage boys spent their nickels in the pin ball machine while other kids watched.  Sometimes they lifted the machine onto the wide edges of their Tom McCann shoes to cheat. 

Some used a coat hanger to pry up the edges of the top of the machine and score points and illegal free games.  When caught they were thrown out of the store for a while but the police were never called. 

39 cents per hour was my wage and I felt like a BIG SHOT!

Summer Days

Not long after I learned to walk, my cousin showed up at our apartment on top of the bar. He took me on an adventure in the fields and woods nearby. Joey took me everywhere. He was three years older than I, and the best cousin anyone could ever have. I got to hang out with some of his buddies. They taught me how to play fist ball, tag and tug of war.

When I was in the second grade I started to take Joey’s younger brother Johnnie, (who was two years younger than me) to the same places Joey took me to. A few years later their sister Patsy would come along. She had a great sense of humor and was a lot of fun. Patsy was about a year and a half older than me.

Johnny used to fall in the creeks a lot when we were jumping from stone to stone. It was always at the end of the day so when he got home for dinner soaking wet, I’d get blamed and hollered at a little. But, I never really got punishment for anything.

Aunt Helen was wonderful, beautiful and funny! She was also a great cook and I stayed for dinner a lot.

We also went to the playgrounds, ponds and creeks on the weekends during the school year but Joey was usually at practice for school sports. Patsy would skip her sport games.